The contrast is often drawn between the world-wide fame of Robert Burns, and the lesser renown of his Ayrshire contemporary James Boswell.
A banner advertising the Boswell Book Festival in 2014.
The imbalance was redressed a little five years ago when the Boswell Book Festival was set up to celebrate the life and work of the writer at his former family home in Ayrshire, Auchinleck House. It was launched as a festival dedicated to the genres of biography, memoir and diary, the three forms practised by Boswell, the 18th century Ayrshire boy who travelled to London to make his fortune among the literary elite.
From the first, the Boswell Book Festival has been well sponsored and packed with well-known names who might not normally be seen in Ayrshire. The familiar talks and readings have been imaginatively supplemented by occasional theatre and music performances. The diary element was quietly dropped after the first year, but it has continued to be publicised as a festival of biography and memoir.
Visitors to the rain-washed 2014 Boswell Book Festival outside Auchinleck House. As Boswell wrote about his home when Johnson and he visited Boswell’s father there, “It rained all day, and gave Dr Johnson an impression of that incommodiousness of climate in the west…”
You can understand that a book festival needs to have a varied programme to attract the widest possible audience, but for me a significant weakness of the event is how little it deals with Boswell himself and his times.
Its first two years did include David McKail’s one-man show “Bozzy”, David Ashton’s play “Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary of Crime” with Timothy West as Johnson, and an appearance by John Byrne, who had written and directed a TV film about Boswell and Johnson’s trip to the Western Isles. In addition, Dr Gordon Turnbull, General Editor of the Yale University Boswell editions, has been an annual speaker. However, there have been no events about other aspects of 18th century history and culture, such as might be provided by Jenny Uglow, Amanda Vickery, Linda Colley or Maxine Berg.
Instead, many of the guests are the familiar names who appear at other book festivals – for example, Kate Adie, James Naughtie, Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, Ian Rankin – and their topics often seem distant from Boswell and the 18th century.
This year, in fact, the festival actually moved away from Auchinleck House to another period property in Ayrshire, Dumfries House near Cumnock. The new location has certainly been able to provide improved space for events and catering within the house and outbuildings, thus reducing the dependence on vulnerable marquees. In addition, the estate already had more extensive parking space (on level, dry surfaces!) and established woodland walks and children’s playground.
Dumfries House, built in the mid 18th century, venue of the 2015 Boswell Book Festival .
The rear of Dumfries House with two marquees erected for Book Festival events.
It still seems unfortunate, though, that the festival’s physical link with Boswell’s own family home should be severed. The stated purpose of the Boswell Trust, alongside the Festival, is to restore the Boswell Mausoleum in Auchinleck Church. Some Auchinleck estate buildings which have just recently been converted to a cafe and gallery have lost a potentially lucrative weekend.
Still, the organisers of the Boswell Book Festival have done a great job for the local area and the event will surely continue to enhance Boswell’s reputation as, to quote from Andrew Marr in the BBC programme Great Scots: The Writers who Shaped a Nation “the father of modern journalism (and) the inventor of literary biography” as well as a colourful early example of the ambitious young Scot who makes his name in London’s literary and social circles.
Another view of the exterior of Auchinleck House, home of James Boswell. Samuel Johnson described it as “a house of hewn stone, very stately and durable” when he visited it with Boswell.
Johnson, Samuel and Boswell, James (1984) A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides ed. Peter Levi London : Penguin